On my extensive culinary tours I have visited some marvelous places and have had many fascinating gastronomic experiences. In my last column I mentioned how I milked a donkey and made panna cotta from the milk. In Florence, I had cow's stomach prepared for me not in one, but in two different styles.
I've also visited a little ocean village on the southeast coast of Sicily called Marzamemi where I watched them extract roe sacks from giant tuna to make bottarga di tonno, a form of caviar famous throughout the Mediterranean.
Years ago, in Sicily, I saw my first caper bush. They are ubiquitous in that part of the Mediterranean, especially on the island of Pantelleria. The best capers in the world are said to come from that tiny Island south of Sicily. Besides being cultivated, they grow wild out of every nook, cranny and crack on rock walls, natural and man-made. The arid climate and volcanic soil on Pantelleria makes conditions perfect for capers. As most of you know, the caper is an unopened bud of a flower that grows on a perennial bush with large, rounded leaves. Whomever came up with the idea centuries ago of preserving these little pearls was a genius. When the bush actually is left to flower, it is small, pinkish/white and quite beautiful. If left to fruit, it produces a delicious berry, called "cucunci" in Sicilian, which can also be used as a condiment in the kitchen.
I prefer capers from Pantelleria as opposed to others for two major reasons. First is the size. The large capote capers,
as they are more commonly known, are better tasting, although others may beg to differ. The other reason I favor them over all the others is that they are preserved in sea salt from the Sicilian city of Trapani, which is famous for its uniquely flavored salt. They are a perfect flavor combination.
At Ortygia, I use only the above mentioned sea salt and capers in my dishes. On occasion if asked, when available, I will allow my patrons to purchase some.
The capers have to be soaked and rinsed before use because they are too salty to be consumed without this prior preparation. However, it is worth the time and energy. The result is a caper flavor unlike any other, as opposed to capers in brine or in vinegar which tastes of the preserving solution it's packed in. When processed in brine the true flavor of the caper is lost. Salted capers are difficult to find in the United States, and when available the prices are pretty steep. But I recommend purchasing some if possible and tasting the difference.
One of the classic Southern Italian dishes originating in Naples, and also one of my favorites, that incorporates capers is Pasta Puttanesca. Puttanesca is fiery and pungent with passionate aromas. It is not for the faint hearted, but it is for those of you who love dishes with unique, intense flavors. It may not be as gastronomically adventurous as eating cow's stomach boiled in beef broth, but it's a start.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
Salt and black pepper
5 anchovies packed in oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
One 28-ounce can chopped or crushed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
2 tablespoons drained capers or rinsed salted capers
1/2 cup pitted black olives, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil or flat leaf parsley
Grated zest of a half to 1 lemon
1 package (1 pound bucatini or other pasta
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, put the olive oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. When it's hot, add the onion and season with salt and fresh pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and add the anchovies, garlic, and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until the anchovies disintegrate and the garlic has softened, about 2 minutes. Then add the tomatoes, capers, and olives. Cover the pot, adjust the heat so the mixture simmers gently, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it's thick and saucy, 20 minutes. Take off the heat and stir in the basil and lemon zest, and taste and adjust the seasoning.
2. When the water comes to a boil, salt it generously and add the pasta. Cook until al dente, usually 7 to 8 minutes, depending on the package instructions. Reserve about 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid and then drain the pasta. Toss the pasta with the sauce, adding the reserved cooking liquid as needed to thin out the sauce. Serve hot.
Chef Gaetano Cannata, owner of Ortygia Restaurant in Bradenton's Village of the Arts, can be reached at email@example.com.